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Budget Commander: Skullbriar, the Walking Grave

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This Budget Commander has been seven years in the making: Skullbriar, the Walking Grave was one of the very first commanders that I tried covering on my then-new Budget Commander series, back when I was writing for PureMTGO. Skullbriar has always fascinated me ever since I started playing the format back with the release of Commander 2011 due to its utterly unique ability of permanently storing counters placed on it as it moves to any zone other than a player's hand or library. This meant that Skullbriar being removed from the battlefield didn't undo all the hard work you put in to growing it with counters, instead letting you pick up from where you left off without losing all your previous momentum. Being able to safely invest in a counter strategy built around your cheap aggressive commander was a very novel and exciting deck idea to the younger version of me and I wanted to fully explore it in an article.

Back when I started writing Budget Commander I used to do a lot of my brewing process over on a site called TappedOut, and my first Skullbriar draft from seven years ago still exists. Looking back at my old list I am quickly reminded why I scrapped my article: the deck was too weak for my publishing standards.

Despite having such a unique ability, there really wasn't much you could do to take advantage of Skullbriar's counter storage ability other than loading it up with +1/+1 counters with cards like Increasing Savagery. And while permanently storing +1/+1 counters on your commander is sweet, the end result is you've just put a lot of work in to make a decently big creature with haste. Even back in 2011 that was a pretty weak payoff for all that investment: keep in mind that Skullbriar was released in the same set that brought us oldschool classic Commanders like Kaalia of the Vast, Edric, Spymaster of Trest, and Karador, Ghost Chieftain, and they eclipsed Skullbriar both in power and popularity. So after some initial testing I stopped working on my Skullbriar article. Poor Skullbriar was left to collect dust in the junk pile for many years, waiting for the day that its unique ability became relevant.

That day finally came with the release of the partner sets Ikoria: Lair of Behemoths and Commander 2020. These sets introduced keyword counters, counters that give a permanent they're on a keyword ability, such as giving a creature a trample counter with Titanoth Rex or indestructible counter with Daring Fiendbonder. Now suddenly Skullbriar, the Walking Grave can permanently store many beneficial types of counters, significantly increasing its power and potential! After seven years of keeping this brew on the shelf, it's time for me to finally revisit Budget Skullbriar!

Our Goal

Our goal is simple: we are looking to beef up Skullbriar, the Walking Grave with counters -- dealing more damage with +1/+1 counters from cards like Shape of the Wiitigo and getting around blockers with evasion counters like trample with Titanoth Rex -- and kill our opponents with commander damage. We will prevent our opponents from stopping us with protection counters like hexproof from Slippery Bogbonder, and even if Skullbriar dies we'll cheaply return it to the battlefield stronger than before with cards like Call of the Death-Dweller.

If our Skullbriar plan gets shut down then no problem: we've got backup beaters that scale out of control with +1/+1 counters like Managorger Hydra and Vulturous Zombie. Or we just Reanimate the biggest beater in a graveyard and win with that!

Now that we've got a game plan for this deck, let's talk about the key cards that make it tick!

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Smashy Counters

We'll do the typical breakdown of mana, card draw, interaction, and other deck fundamentals, but first let's cover the fun stuff that turn Skullbriar into a game-winning commander.

Skullbriar, the Walking Grave grows into a threat primarily through +1/+1 counters. It puts a +1/+1 counter on itself each time it deals combat damage and many of the other cards that I'll be covering later also give Skullbriar +1/+1 counters as a side effect while fulfilling their primary role. To accelerate our game plan, however, we'll be adding a few cards whose primary purpose is to grow Skullbriar. For adding the highest number of counters with zero setup required nothing beats the mana efficiency of Increasing Savagery: five +1/+1 counters for four mana is a great rate when cast from your hand, then the flashback of ten counters for seven mana can't be beat. Forgotten Ancient is another insane +1/+1 counter generator, putting a +1/+1 counter any time any player casts a spell, quickly filling Skullbriar with counters after a single turn cycle. There are also tons of cards that increase the number of +1/+1 counters you get, like Corpsejack Menace and Hydra's Growth.

Next are the new keyword counters that give Skullbriar some much-needed punch when it attacks. Titanoth Rex and Void Beckoner can be cycled to give Skullbriar permanent trample and deathtouch, and later on we can reanimate them to add extra huge beaters on to the battlefield. I'm also a fan of Unexpected Fangs in this deck since for some reason people don't like it when we attack them with Skullbriar and attack us back, so the permanent lifelink keeps us at a safe life total.

But my favorite smashy card in the entire deck has to be The Ozolith: it's a weird and non-intuitive interaction with are commander, but basically Skullbriar's counters remain on it when it leaves the battlefield but you also get to put a copy of all those counters on The Ozolith, doubling the amount of counters on Skullbriar when it comes back later. That's an insane amount of value for a 1 mana artifact!

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Since our commander requires a green and a black mana to be cast on turn 2, mana-fixing is more important than usual for our 2C deck: lands that tap for either green or black are key here, or at least one of those colors, with colorless lands harming our deck's consistency and needing to be very good to be worth considering. Basic budget manafixers like Jungle Hollow work great here, but there's also a bunch of sweet lands that efficiently add a counter to Skullbriar, such as Llanowar Reborn, Oran-Rief, the Vastwood, and Opal Palace.

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We're in Green so there's no end of sweet ramp cards for our deck no matter the budget. There's some niche cards that shine particularly bright in Skullbriar, however: Ordeal of Nylea is fantastic, growing Skullbriar and ramping us two lands for just two mana. There's also One with Nature, a one mana repeatable ramp spell, once we attack a single time with it it's already a half-price Rampant Growth which is just amazing and any additional lands we get is just absurd value. I also love Incubation Druid here and there's a lot of ways to give it a +1/+1 counter in the deck outside of paying five mana to adapt it, and a 2 mana ramp creature that taps for three is a great rate.

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Card Draw

Ramping and beating face is good and all, but what's the point if you're not drawing cards? Thankfully we tons of amazing card draw options in our deck. First and foremost are the green card draw spells that are keyed off of our biggest creature's power or toughness, like Rishkar's Expertise, Hunter's Insight, Hunter's Prowess, and Return of the Wildspeaker. Resolving any of these spells with a decently sized Skullbriar or other big creature will instantly refill our hand. We also have more generic card draw options in Black, such as Ambition's Cost, Ancient Craving, Read the Bones, or Necropotence.

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Being in Golgari colors means that we can easily deal with any threat we come across. There aren't many notable thematic options that I'd recommend, though casting Find // Finality is a decent enough board wipe that adds counters to Skullbriar, and we can leverage its ever-growing size to snipe creatures by making them fight it with Ulvenwald Tracker. However, I'm totally fine recommending generic staples like Nature's Claim and Snuff Out, which are just as great here as they are anywhere else.

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Since our commander is our primary win condition, we need to take steps to ensure it isn't easily removed. The two best options are ones that add keyword counters: Slippery Bogbonder gives Skullbriar permanent hexproof and Daring Fiendbonder gives it permanent indestructible. Another great option is Ring of Xathrid, which lets us regenerate Skullbriar while slowly adding extra +1/+1 counters. Kaya's Ghostform is another cheap way to make sure Skullbriar immediately returns to the battlefield the next time its killed.

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While Skullbriar, the Walking Grave is cheap enough that it can be recast a couple times from the command zone if it dies without issue, there are many times where it's just more mana-efficient for us to let it stay in the graveyard and then put it back directly into play with some graveyard recursion. For budget ways to get back Skullbriar from our graveyard we've got Unearth as the cheapest way, Call of the Death-Dweller, which also gives it deathtouch and menace, and Gruesome Menagerie which can get up to two other creatures along with our commander. We also have generic card recursion like Regrowth.

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Golgari has a variety of sweet tutors to choose from. In this particular deck I'm very fond of Jarad's Orders and Final Parting as ways to tutor something useful to our hand while also putting something useful in the graveyard, which almost always is going to be Daring Fiendbonder so we can immediately give Skullbriar indestructible. Another budget inclusion is Diabolic Tutor, but if money is no obstacle then Vampiric Tutor can't be beat.

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Deckbuilding Checklist

Alright, now that we've gone over the card pool we're working with, it's time to talk about how we craft the deck. As I often explain in my Budget Commander articles, every time I build a rough draft of a deck, I make sure I have a certain amount of mana, interaction, card advantage, etc. This gives me a reference point to compare to the deck and see which areas may need improvement. This is my general checklist of minimum requirements:

  • 50 mana; lands and ramp, usually a 37–13 split
  • 10 sources of "card advantage;" I use this term loosely but am mostly looking for card draw or any spell that nets me 2+ non-land cards in hand / directly into play
  • 6 targeted removal; split between creature / artifact / enchantment removal
  • 3 board wipes; creature-light decks might want one more, creature-heavy decks might want one less
  • 2 recursion
  • 2 flexible tutors
  • 1 graveyard hate; to shut down powerful graveyard recursion that everyone runs
  • 1 surprise "I Win" card; something that can win games the turn you cast it without too much setup

The remaining deck slots are filled with whatever cards fit the deck's theme and add to the overall synergy. That's always my starting point, which is then tweaked to suit the individual deck's strategy and further tweaked with playtesting. I always find it immensely useful to figure out some quick ways to improve the deck in question.

Now that we've covered the deck's goal, the cards we're going to building with, and have a check list of cards that we'll need, let's build the sample decks!

$50 List

The starting list already contains most of my favorite cards for the deck. Our tutors Jarad's Orders and Final Parting are allstars here, often putting Slippery Bogbonder in our hand and Daring Fiendbonder in our graveyard. We can quickly load up on +1/+1 counters with cards like Forgotten Ancient and Increasing Savagery and double the amount of counters with Corpsejack Menace and Hydra's Growth. The rest of our deck is loaded with interaction, card draw, ramp, and protection.

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$100 List

Doubling the budget lets us snag another powerful counter doubler: The Ozolith. We also have better burst draw with Rishkar's Expertise, better mana with Utopia Sprawl and Shizo, Death's Storehouse, and another powerful +1/+1 counter threat with Managorger Hydra.

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$200 List

Doubling our budget yet again allows us to pick up some very expensive options that help with the deck's consistency. We have another powerful +1/+1 doubler with Branching Evolution, faster mana with Overgrown Tomb, more tutoring with Green Sun's Zenith, better protection with Veil of Summer, and faster board wipe with Toxic Deluge.

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That's All, Folks!

Hope this one was worth the wait! Next up I've got something a bit different: Chandra Tribal, where I show different ways to build a powerful and optimized Chandra-themed deck under various restrictions! It won't fit the usual $50/100/200 budget price points since planeswalkers are inherently expensive but I will impose certain budget restrictions as well. Thanks for reading!

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